Germany After the First World War.

Germany After the First World War. – book reviews

Gerald D. Feldman

It is almost hard to remember the time when the literature on the aftermath of the First World War in Germany concentrated its attention on the Revolution of 1918-1919 and its failures, the role of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils and the chances for a “third way” between Bolshevism and parliamentary democracy. It is probably premature to say that research on the revolution and the councils – or the role of counterrevolutionary activities – has exhausted itself given the as yet untapped materials in the archives of the former German Democratic Republic. If there is to be a recrudescence of work on the Revolution and councils, however, it will have to be informed by a sober appreciation of the socioeconomic and psychological consequences of the First World War rather than by the euphoria over “direct democracy” and other enthusiasms of the 1960s and 1970s. Richard Bessel’s new book is an important contribution which will need to be consulted by anyone interested in what he correctly recognizes as the failed transition from a wartime to a peacetime society in post-World War I Germany.

Fundamentally, this is a book about the demobilization. Bessel, to be sure, does go over some ground covered, among others, by this reviewer, Jurgen Kocka, Wilhelm Deist, Friedrich Zunkel, and Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, and he duly acknowledges the work in the field. Nevertheless, his book is valuable for three reasons. First, it is the first and only comprehensive social history of the demobilization, and it is likely to remain a definitive account. Thus, he deals not only with the planning for the demobilization, the demobilization of the economy and of labor, but also with the problem of housing and of demobilization on the countryside. Second, he provides a great deal of new data from an astonishingly large array of central, state, and local archives. He has done particularly interesting work in the archives of the former GDR and in Polish archives in areas formerly belonging to Germany. Bessel has long been one of the pioneers in the use of the Polish archives for German history. Finally, and most importantly, Bessel’s study offers a host of new insights as well as imaginative conclusions well worth further consideration.

One of the most important of these interpretive contributions comes early in the book as well as at the end, namely, his challenge to the idea that there was some kind of homogeneous “front generation” that experienced the war in a uniform way and returned with a particular attitude. In reality, the front-line army had a one-third turnover each year of the war, and its age composition changed radically in favor of younger and older men. Because of exemptions for industrial and agricultural work, there was far more fluidity between the war front and the home front than has previously been recognized. A good part of the “front generation” was at home when the war ended. Well-fed at the front, soldiers were often demoralized by the conditions they saw and experienced at home and, in effect, felt stabbed in the back by a government which failed to take care of their families. The army seems to have demoralized the homefront more than the homefront the army. Contrary to later legends, the troops were well received when they returned home, which helped fuel the more dangerous legend that they had been undefeated in the field. Celebrations, of course, cannot be held for troops who do not march home in order; the bulk of the army seems to have demobilized itself when it reached Germany and, as Bessel sensibly suggests, most of the soldiers appeared to want nothing more than a return to normal existences.

The mythology of the “front experience,” Bessel argues, was primarily the work of officers and writers, and it had its greatest resonance not among those who had actually fought in the war but rather among the younger generation which had just missed the experience. As Bessel admits, however, the male survivors of the war constituted one-quarter of the German electorate, were the most established members of their communities, and constituted the core of the Stahlhelm and other right-wing groups, including the NSDAP. What is difficult to determine is the extent to which those voters were susceptible to the myth of the “front experience,” to the misogynist sentiments left over from the challenge to patriarchal values produced by the wartime experience, and to the spirit of revanchism induced by the defeat and the peace. Bessel does not really resolve this problem in his argument, but it in no way vitiates the importance of his most basic contention that “[A]fter the First World War, Germany never really made the transition from a ‘war society’ (Kriegsgesellschaft) to a ‘peace society’ (Friedensgesellschaft). Instead, it remained a post-war society.” (p. 283) It is a valuable hypothesis for further research on Germany in the interwar period. One interesting question would be how Germans made the transition from a ‘postwar society’ to the ‘prewar society’ they became under the National Socialists.

Gerald D. Feldman University of California, Berkeley

COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group